Monday, June 10, 2013

Buddha in All of Us

Mandala (1981) - ImImage
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Stilted dialog, grainy, scratched print, out of sync sound didn't really dampen my viewing of Im Kwon-taek's masterpiece Mandala, which tackles the concept of Buddhism with no subtleties. It seems unlike other religions, the faith in Buddhism is soley relied upon its practitioner, with no help from Buddha himself nor within group dynamics. Im zeros in on the human struggle to find meaning of life in two characters: Ji-san, a heavy drinking, meat eating, womanizing monk whose singular philosophy is 'don't run from life's obstacles but confront them' and that intrigues Bub-un, a young, serious monk wrestling with his own personal demons. The unlikely pair decides to travel together.

For Ji-san, it was a night with a runaway girl that was the cause of his fall from grace and expulsion from the order and for Bub-un, it was dissatisfaction of college life not providing the answers to life that drove him to the monastic life. As Ji-san takes Bub-un to Seoul, to make him confront the desire of flesh, we are presented with an incredibly moving yet sad scene- the cross cut of Bub-un's secret carnal misdeeds and him getting a blowjob from a prostitute in his sleep in a dingy motel room.

After they go their separate ways, Bub-un learns that finding oneself doesn't necessarily mean reciting sutras and meditation alone but also looking into others, as he hears Ji-san's selfless act in taking care of an entire village which was reeling in some terrible disease. They meet up again and set up a small temple of their own on the top of a snowy mountain. Both Jisan's drinking, devil may care attitude and Bub-un's education continue...

Mandala is a quiet, deeply philosophical yet completely unpretentious film. The power and beauty comes from its somber mood and simple, straightforward storytelling. I just wish there was a better print of this beautiful film.

*I mistook this film for another one of Im's movies on Buddhism called Upward, Upward, Come Upwards with Kang Soo-yeon. I might have to check that one out too.

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